Common people

Last Sunday, to make the most of the autumnal sunshine and the riot of anthocyanins and carotenoids, I wandered up to the Common.  I’m sure that New England in the Fall can offer a more impressive display, but it makes for a far less practical ambulatory excursion from my demesne.  Even were I the proud possessor of seven league boots, there would still remain the watery challenge of bridging the Atlantic without a convenient island chain and with ever declining sea ice to use as stepping stones.

The trees looked suitably beautiful, captured part-way through their annual striptease.  I attempted to capture their colourful burlesque using my smartphone to share its glory with my adoring fans but, while the camera may – like Sir Mix-a-Lot, but without his gluteal obsession – be incapable of falsehood, it does not tell the whole truth.  Still, for what it’s worth here is one mellow fruit harvested from my several attempts:

But a poor shadow

But a poor shadow

Despite my demonstrably limited photographic skills, and my inability (or lack of interest) in the selfie, I do find myself framing my view of the world to improve its aesthetics.  Recently, while waiting for the (unseasonal) green man to show his face (in profile at least), I found myself adjusting my position at a Pelican crossing to optimise the positioning of a nearby branch against the near-full moon which lay behind it.  Oh yes, that really happened – I even had to crouch down a little to achieve the ‘perfect’ effect.  I suppose that I, at least, should be grateful for the chronic underfunding of mental health services which leaves me free to roam the streets.

As the image shows, I was not the only person to spend my afternoon on the Common: though I was probably the only one listening to Hear and Now, brought from Radio 3 to my temporally out-of-phase ears by the magic of the iPlayer.  This was a concert hosted and curated by James McVinnie – who I slightly know or have at least shared a beer with on a couple of occasions – of music from the Bedroom Community and mostly featuring the organ of the Royal Festival Hall.  It made for rather effective accompaniment to my perambulations.

Over the months, I have seen a wide range of activities pursued by people on the Common.  I have spoken before of those practising in the hope of gaining sporting prowess, including the playing of Muggle Quidditch.  Training was occurring again on Sunday, but I suppose that the university team have a triumphant position to defend this season having topped the league in 2014/5.  I also realised that muggle players do retain a vestigial broomstick – though it would be of little use for sweeping (or, indeed, flying).  Slightly closer to flying, I have often seen a rope strung up between two trees and young people attempting to walk across it – something I might be tempted to try myself once my gymnastic-honed balancing skills have improved a little further.

There are obviously those like myself out for a constitutional: often with a dog, ageing relative or pram-borne infant in tow.  Barbecuing is also a common choice – and given the autumnal absence of the ice-cream van (a foolish waste of a solid business opportunity) a tempting option for the peckish.  In the past, I have seen a couple practising some form of dance which I took to be Latin.  They made this look a lot more sensual and fun then anything which televised pro-celebrity dancing contests have suggested is strictly ballroom.  There is also a band of folk who re-enact Norman combat (and we’re talking Angevin here, not Wisdom or Schwarzkopf) with swords, spears, shields and some degree of vaguely appropriate dress.  I’ve also seen archery – though this seems to have a more modern vibe and seems independent of the descendants of King Rollo (not the harmless duffer that children’s television might have led you to believe).

As well as the opportunities for people-watching, the Common is also pretty good for wildlife.  On Sunday, I found a tree full of tits: stratified by altitude.  The Great Tits commanded the heights, below them the Blue and at eye-level the delightful antics of their Long-Tailed brethren (though they are only very distantly related).  Actually, despite being a scant mile from any plausible definition of the city centre, my garret does provide hints of a pseudo-rural idyll – even without the short stroll to the Common.  A few evenings ago, when I was being uncharacteristically quiet (not that I am normally an especially noisy neighbour, just rarely entirely silent), I could hear tawny owls courting in (presumably) nearby trees.  Are they following the foxes into our cities?  Will we soon find owls rifling through our bins?  People laughed at Futurama, but they were the first to identify the menace that owls will pose in the future. What other apparently foolish predictions may yet be proved accurate?

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Poker Face

Having thought up this title, I found myself musing on recognition for my services to blogging in the New Year’s Honours.  If I were elevated to a baronetcy, I could (perhaps) chose to become Baron Gaga of Madingley (or similar).  Were I then to produce via some method (or adopt?) a heavily X-chromosomed offspring, she could legitimately call herself Lada Gaga.  Whilst several forms of infinite universe make these events basically certain, it seems like a lot of effort when the option of a Statutory Declaration is available.

I suspect I would make a very poor poker player: I am far too risk-averse and (as we will soon discover) may face is far from a vizard to my heart (to paraphrase Lady Macbeth).  However, I have twice in the last 24 hours seen doors with an unparalleled ability to conceal their heightened emotional state without obvious effort.  In each case the door bore the legend “This door is alarmed”, but in not the slightest way did either betray its agitation.  They were the very models of Stoic wooden virtue.

Earlier yesterday, I had been at the Finborough Theatre to enjoy The Sweethearts by Sarah Page.  A play both funny and shocking and graced by excellent performances and clever staging.  Afterwards, I was enjoying a pint of session ale in the Finborough Arms and composing the post which preceded this one into the world, when the cast started filtering down the stairs dressed in their workaday mufti.  I recognised most of them, though not always immediately (my ageing brain is easily foxed by a costume change), but one of them recognised me rather quickly.  It would seem that my face and body language had done little to conceal my deep involvement in the play.  Apparently, according to Jack Derges, I make for good audience and they need more of me (in this latter assertion he was, of course, wrong: one of me is more than enough for any universe).  I am unrepentant: I refuse to sit stony-faced when up close and personal with the Arts – despite the (apparently) prevailing opinion that this is inappropriate for a man of my age and station.

Being recognised by the talent is becoming a rather too regular occurrence.  Only the previous night, while buying a CD, the band had recognised me from the last time I had seen them play (several months before).  The previous weekend, the talent actually briefly confused me for a musician before successfully placing me in an earlier audience.

I don’t think I’m that odd looking (or acting, at least while seated and delivering my rapt attention stage-wards), so why do I seem to be so memorable?  I’m not sure whether this is a boon or a curse, but I can see that I can no longer rely on anonymity to shield me when in the public realm.  Is it time to wear a mask to protect my secret identity?  (Or should that be to create one?)

When a man is bored of Haydn…

… it is perhaps time for him to be found?  Or to start Seekyn?

It is easy to be seduced by more modern composers and later iterations of the forms of classical music: or even by entirely new musical forms and instrumentation.  However, I do find myself coming back to Haydn – and doing so in a manner which I hope does not bring to mind a dog and a dinner that had earlier been the subject of less than fully unsuccessful digestion.

It is to Haydn (and Harris) that I owe my love of choral music, with some harp glissandi (budget constraints mean you will have to imagine these) taking us back a quarter of a century to a Creation in Bexhill.  Many years ago, he also helped me to both eat well and cement my love of the string quarter when I was staying in Sydney.  To fill my evenings with incident and moment, I went to the local analogue of the Wigmore Hall and almost every concert started with a Haydn string quartet.  This same habit required me to eat early (something to which I am rarely averse) and it is amazing how many good but otherwise fully booked restaurants can find you a table if you are willing to eat at half-five (do not attempt this trick in Madrid, where 17:30 still falls within the scope of lunchtime).

I was reminded of this last night (at time of writing), as Denis Kozhukhin played two Haydn keyboard sonatas and all the petty stresses of life faded to silence.  Pleasingly, his programme included works by both Brahms and Liszt – a surprisingly rare occurrence despite what the folk of Bow (and environs) would have you believe.  I’m beginning to think that Brahms might be like olives: you have to reach a certain antiquity before you can appreciate him (or them).  He did little for me in my youth, but I find him increasingly compelling as I race towards oblivion.

While the Haydn was a thing of joy and reinforced the importance of the Arts to the wealth of the nation (or at least my contribution thereto), the stand-out piece was by Bartók.  His Out of Doors Suite was quite stunning, even frightening, and continues the composer’s rehabilitation in my estimation.  Returning to the Land Down-Under, his Mysterious Mandarin did little for me in Melbourne but with age has come, if not wisdom, at least a monotonically increasing appreciation for his wider oeuvre.

This same piece of music also demonstrated that another profession may not be long for this world: replaced by technology.  Traditionally, a pianist playing from a physical score (rather than memory) would be assisted by a page-turner: her own hands being busy at the keyboard.  Not so young Denis.  He had the score displayed on his iPad (well, I assume it was his – well, he had an honest face) and changed the page using some form of electronic foot pedal communing with the score through the aether.  Even he, who is still the wrong side of thirty (by which I mean younger) needed recourse to his glasses to make this work – but I feel, in the medium to long-term, the days of the page turner may be drawing to a close.  I fear this removes another modest source of income from the musician.

So, cherish your human page turner while you can – Cupertino are well on the way to sending them the way of the lamp-lighter and dodo.

Trend Setter

Not, I was slightly disappointed to learn, a particularly stylish breed of gun dog.  Instead, this will be an attempt to prove that where I lead, others follow.  I shall have resort to only two examples, but I think you will agree that these generalise very nicely.

Today, in the UK at least, is National Poetry Day.  By contrast, it would seem that the novella rates an entire month (which, in case you missed it, was back in June) and continuing the apparent trend one must assume that the novel requires an entire year, if it is to be given justice.  I am, of course, well ahead of the game here and have been obsessed by the poem for some weeks now.  As a sign of what a kind and generous author I am, I have decided to spare you any of my own attempts at poesy (not an offer you’ll find in many other places).  Still, I felt I should mark the day in some form and so once again braved the tumbleweed which blows through the poetry section of the Southampton Central Library.  Thus it was that I came to bring Rain home with me (and without any recourse to dance).  Some may think we have had more than enough rain already this week, but my Rain is a collection of poems by Don Patterson.  I’d seen a copy of his poem Motive in a tweet earlier in the day and was inspired to give his wider oeuvre a go: a decision cemented by the dedication to Michael Donaghy which opens the collection.  Later this evening, I will return to the same library where Luke Wright and others (including one Open Mike, who I trust will not be over-sharing) will be performing poetry to mark this ‘special’ day.

This week also brought to England (the other home nations have been doing this for some time) a legal requirement to charge at least 5p for the plastic carrier bags provided by larger shops.  When I was but a callow youth, supermarkets charged for bags and so I always carried my own to help eek-out my meagre student grant (a grant which would seem a princely gift to today’s students).  This habit has stayed with me ever since and I have been widely mocked for it over the years.  Who’s laughing now, eh?  My thrift – or environmental conscience (if I’m trying to cast matters in a more flattering light) – is finally vindicated.  The bag-of-bags which has cluttered my gaffs over the years is finally going to pay its way.

As a consequence of this new charge, sales assistants have clearly been trained to ask, in advance, if customers would like a bag.  Earlier this afternoon, I bought a mini-tube of toothpaste to use when flying (I do like to travel light).   Sadly, those I had acquired for free from my days of occasional business-class intercontinental travel have all run out.  Arriving at the till, I was offered a carrier bag for my wares (or ware).  When I produced my item, the female assistant remarked that she was expecting something larger.  Quick as a flash (or at least after only a brief lacuna) I retorted that this was a phrase I had heard too many times before.  Cue hilarity!  OK, that might be a slight over-statement but she did giggle her way through the remainder of the transaction.

I will admit that there remains a little way to go before my section of the Oxford Dictionary of Humorous Quotations consumes as many column inches as that devoted to Oscar Wilde – but I think we can all agree that in (at least) two areas over the course of a single week (and it’s still only Wednesday) I am very much the man to follow when it comes to lifestyle.  [In the meantime, I shall be working on some quips about the skeletal structure of the upper arm as my entrée to the Oxford Dictionary of Humerus Quotations].

Harmonica surgery

I like to imagine that I have received a fairly broad exposure to music over the years.  I enjoy live music on a regular basis and listen to 6Music and even to Radio 3.  Despite this background, I constantly find myself exposed to new forms of music, new composers and even whole new instruments.  Music is truly (one of) the most generous of gift-givers.

As is my wont, I shall illustrate with a couple of examples from the last week – with the implicit promise that one of these will explain (or at least justify) the title.

We shall start, as discussions of music often do, with Bach (JS, for the avoidance of doubt).  I do enjoy the work of Herr Bach, but I’ve come to realise that I expose myself to new examples at a very cautious pace.  I started with the big choral works and have gradually moved on to the Cello Suites and Brandenburg concertos.   Last Thursday, the Britten Sinfonia and Jeremy Denk provided quite the Bach buffet with works both unadorned and arranged by Stravinsky and Webern.  All were fun, but the revelations were the two (as left by JSB) keyboard concertos (in A and E, but without the traditional four hour wait).  They may have been up-cycled from woodwind concertos (how have we allowed ourselves to lose the oboe d’amore from everyday life?  If not wanted in the concert hall, surely Ann Summers could find a use for it?) but in Jeremy’s hands were things of beauty.  Herr B (this constant changing of my reference to my subject is a bad habit – it weakens the ‘arc of coherence’ – and is called either monologophobia or synonymomania.  Notwithstanding S A Pinker’s excellent advice, it seems too intrinsic to my idiolect to easily discard, but I may try and slowly phase it out) has quite the extensive canon of work and given my historic rate of progress through it, I rather fear I may have to pass this project on to my (as yet purely virtual) descendants.

My second example will come from a rather different style of music supplied by Phillip Henry and Hannah Martin on Tuesday night at the Art House cafe.  They brought quite the array of string instruments with them: including both a banjo and fiddle boasting five strings (one more than I was expecting, though apparently a banjo can go as high as six).  However, the newer instrument was the Dobro – which I believe to be a special case of the resonator guitar (in wood with a single cone and biscuit bridge: I feel peckish just typing that description).  This instrument looks like a cyborg-guitar, or perhaps a steam-punk’d one, and is played with picks and a slide. The picks can also be replaced with a (roughly) U-shaped device with a blue-light on one end which generates an effect not wholly unlike a theremin when brought close (or perhaps into contact with) the strings.  To make an entertaining evening of folk-inflected music, the many strings were augmented by some foot-stomping and liberal use of the harmonica.  Phillip came to the gig with at least ten harmonicas (probably more), which strongly suggests that not all harmonicas are created equal: presumably they have different tunings?!  I would also guess it is an instrument one would prefer not to share.  One of the harmonicas he admitted to surgically altering – by use of a soldering iron – to better replicate the sound of a squeeze-box.  I’d say this attempt was pretty successful and creates a much more portable option than the instrument it is impersonating.  Not only were the harmonicas played individually, but at times two seemed to be ‘in-play’ at once and their use was also combined with beat-boxing.  It would seem the humble harmonica provides a much broader range of musical options than I had imagined.  The only downside arises when travelling as under X-ray they are readily mistaken for items very firmly prohibited from an airplane: however, if you enjoy a full body cavity search feel free to travel with the old French harp (which is surely a calculated insult aimed firmly at our friends across La Manche).

Somewhere, I do have a mini-harmonica which I was given by Helen Arney for some historic piece of audience participation.  Perhaps it is time to take it more seriously as a concert instrument – or perhaps it would be better to remain on amicable terms with my neighbours.  On balance, I feel that discretion is the better part of valour and shall save my assault on the intricacies of the harmonica for when next I am stranded (alone) on a desert island.